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What You Need to Build Your Own Home Theater PC

You can build your own HTPC that integrates with your home theater system — if you have the knowledge and the skills needed to install cards, drives, and so on. The information presented here is also useful if you want to order a new or customized PC online and need to know what specs you'll need for your HTPC.

An increasing number of small, specialty PC builders, such as the folks at Digital Connection, can put an HTPC together for you.

The key pieces and parts to any HTPC are the following:

  • Fast processor: You need a fast Core II Duo processor (preferably 2.0 GHz or faster) or an equivalent AMD processor. You can get away with less, but you might have performance issues (such as DVDs having artifacts, or leftover or poorly presented pixels, on the screen because the PC can’t keep up the decoding of the DVD’s MPEG content).

  • Sufficient RAM: For an HTPC, you need at least 2GB of RAM; 4GB or more is a good idea.

  • A big hard drive: If you’re not planning on saving a lot of video on your HTPC, you can probably get by with a 200GB hard drive. Otherwise, you'll need a much bigger hard drive (think terabytes!).

    You should also consider additional network storage in the form of a network attached storage (or NAS) system. Big PC manufacturers, such as HP, are selling network storage solutions designed to hold media using the Windows Home Server software system.

  • A powerful, high-quality video card with an appropriate TV interface: You need a graphics card that has TV outputs (at least component video outputs, preferably HDMI). If you’re using a front-projection TV system, you might be able to use a different interface (such as a VGA or DVI cable) that is more common to PC applications than home video. Check out the graphics cards available from ATI and NVIDIA.

    Some specific things to look for in a video card include a built-in video processing engine and a built-in TV tuner (or an HDTV tuner, if you plan to use your HTPC to record and display television signals).

  • A high-end audio card: Because you’ll probably be playing surround-sound formats on your HTPC, you’ll want an audio card that can support this. Audio cards may have either a coaxial or an optical output. Make sure you get one that has the same kind as what you have on the back of your receiver.

  • A CD/DVD-ROM drive: Consider a DVD-RW/DVD+RW drive (that can record DVDs). If you have a slower PC, you might consider adding a hardware device called a DVD decoder. You can get DVD decoders from companies such as Creative Labs and Sigma Designs.

    Consider installing a Blu-ray disc drive in your home theater PC to get the best picture quality. Blu-ray discs can also be used for backup and can hold as much as 50GB of data.

  • An appropriate operating system: You should use a modern operating system, such as Windows XP/Vista (with the corresponding Media Center) or Macintosh OS X.

  • Software for playing or recording content: You need some MP3 jukebox software to take care of your CD/MP3 playing, storage, and organization needs, and a similar DVD player program. Don’t forget that Microsoft’s built-in Windows Media Player does a great job with both audio and video. A great free option is the VLC Media Player, available for Mac, Windows, and Linux.

  • A remote control: Few PCs come out-of-the-box with a remote control, but many of the HTPC video and audio cards do. The key attribute of any remote for an HTPC is that the accompanying software can control all your applications — MP3 jukebox, DVD player software, and so on.

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